Thor’s Day Alert #18: Reasons to read Icelandic sagas
Happy Thor’s Day, everybody!
In devoting so much of this blog to talking about Norse myth, I fear I’ve neglected that other endlessly fascinating arena of Scandinavian lore: Icelandic saga.
If you haven’t read any sagas before — or lately — I encourage you to check them out. I’ve posted a couple recommendations on my Nordic links page.
Sagas are easy to read because you can read them one chunk at a time, like a collection of short stories or a novella. More than that, though, sagas are fun to read. Here’s a few examples that prove it:
Then Thorstein said, “I’ve been looking at your arms, kinsman, and I’m certainly not surprised at the strong blows they have delivered to so many men, because I have never seen any man with such arms.”
“You should have known,” said Grettir, “that I would never have accomplished the deeds I have done if I weren’t stoutly built.”
“I would have preferred less muscle and more good fortune,” said Thorstein.
Then Grettir said, “The saying is true: no man is his own creator. Show me your arms then.”
Thorstein showed him: he was exceptionally skinny.
With a smile, Grettir said, “I’ve seen quite enough. Your ribs look like hooks and I don’t think I’ve ever seen another pair of tongs like those arms of yours. I can’t imagine you even have the strength of a woman.”
–The Saga of Grettir the Strong, translated by Bernard Scudder
Good thing Grettir and Thorstein were brothers and just goofing around! Comparisons of men to women were considered the gravest of insults in Viking times, as you can see in this nicely abbreviated passage from Njal’s Saga, as posted at Hurstwic.org:
In chapter 123 of Njáls saga, Flosi, thinking he had been insulted by Njál, taunted him by saying, “There are many who can’t tell by looking at him whether he is a man or a woman.” Njal’s son, Skarpheðinn, returned the taunt, with interest, saying, “You are the sweetheart of the troll at Svinafell, as is said, he uses you as a woman every ninth night.” Flosi later made good on the insult by burning down Njál’s house, killing both Njál and Skarpheðinn (along with many others) in the flames.
Damn — that’s harsh! (Skarpheðinn calling Flosi a troll’s bitch, that is. Burning down Skarpheðinn’s father’s house in retribution for such an insult is understandable. Isn’t it?) But if you think that’s harsh, let’s close by revisiting Grettir the Strong, also excerpted from the aforementioned book:
In the morning, the first people on the farm got up and two women were the first to enter the main room, a servant-woman and the farmer’s daughter. Grettir was asleep and his clothes had slipped off on to the floor. They saw a man lying there whom they recognized.
Then the servant-woman said, “Upon my word, sister, Grettir Asmundarson is here, lying naked. He looks big-framed to me all right, but I’m astonished to see how poorly endowed he is between his legs. It’s not in proportion to the rest of him.”
The farmer’s daughter answered, “Why can’t you ever keep your mouth shut? You’re no ordinary idiot — just keep quiet.”
“I can’t keep quiet about that, sister,” the servant-woman said. “I’d never have believed it if anyone had told me.”
Then she went over to take a peek and ran back to the farmer’s daughter every so often, roaring with laughter.
Grettir heard what she said. And when she ran across the floor once more he grabbed her and spoke a verse:
That wench takes things too lightly;
Few invokers of spear-storms
have much choice about the sword
that adorns their forest of hair.
I bet I have twice the balls
that other spear-thrusters boast,
even if their shafts
can outstretch mine.
He snatched her up on to the cross-bench and the farmer’s daughter ran out of the room. Then Grettir spoke a verse:
The seamstress sitting at home,
short-sworded she calls me;
maybe the boastful hand-maiden
of ball-trunks is telling the truth.
But a young man like me
can expect sprouts to grow
in the groin-forest: get ready
for action, splay-legged goddess.
The servant woman shouted at the top of her voice, but when she left Grettir she did not taunt him again.
Now that’s harsh. I guess Grettir hadn’t yet learned the old standby, “I might be fighting with a smaller weapon — but I’m a swordsman!”
Thanks for stopping by. See ya next week!